Wednesday, December 29, 2010

you could say one recovers

Did you notice anything missing from this blog for the last couple of months? Oh, you didn't realize this banana stand was still in operation? I can't promise the updates will continue at the same clip as before, but for now, I offer an account of the last Jon Brion show of 2010.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, December 17, 2010: I already made too much noise about commemorations and milestones last year, but I should've saved the fanfare for another 12 months because--drumroll, please--this show marked the true 11th anniversary of my first Jon Brion gig. Yup, 11 years ago to the day, I took my seat at the old shoebox on Fairfax Avenue and summarily had my mind blown. If you search around the Internet, you might even be able to find a recording of the show. Trust me, it's worth downloading!

Arbitrary anniversaries aside, would-be Largo historians and archivists might want to address the bigger development of the last year, when Jon took his show from a weekly residency to a monthly appointment. I'm not the best person to address the topic, as Jon's reduced schedule worked overwhelmingly in my favor. After all, on average, I missed 75 percent of his gigs--which served as a useful salve when I sat out the last couple of months--on the old plan. If a local wants to speak up with any observations on how the new allotments have affected Jon's playing, feel free to comment below.

On this occasion, at least one surprise awaited us: an opening act, a rarity at Jon's show these days. Flanny introduced Garfunkel & Oates, the two-lady musical duo. I catch them all the time on podcasts and the like, and I was delighted to finally see them in person--though a few readers may recall the time we caught half the act at another late-night comedy show the summer before. I suppose you could draw parallels between them and, say, Flight of the Conchords. Heck, I dig 'em both, and it's great to see the pair catching on all over.

Soon after, it was Jon's turn, and he concentrated on his own works. Among the titles, "It Looks Like You" sounded particularly jangly, and "Knock Yourself Out" luxuriated in a long intro. As Jon tuned his guitar after "She's At It Again," one audience member politely but effectively fielded a question regarding the status of Jon's follow-up to Meaningless--an effort Jon had cited a year ago as one of the benefits of his amended performance schedule.

In response, Jon reported that he had put 1.5 weeks into the record before he was drawn away for other work. (By my very rough estimates, that adds up to at least two albums and two movie scores for 2010.) As a consolation, he played "Girl I Knew," which he said would be on that forthcoming album. However, hold your breath at your own risk.

For the video portion of the show, he brought out Andres Segovia and Leon Theremin to lay the groundwork for the amazingly versatile "Stop the World." Jon seems to cobble it together with a paperclip and a rubber band, yet it still sounds like a grand orchestra at work. To close out the originals oeuvre, he almost literally banged out the wordless "Croatia."

It was time to open up the request line, and the calls came in. Jon moved to the vibes for, in order, "Psycho Killer," "You Won't See Me" with our middling vocal contributions, and one line of "Paparazzi," though truth be told, the last one would've gone unrecognized if (1) he hadn't sang the title and (2) I hadn't heard the request myself. "I Believe She's Lying," with the full build, was another request and featured impressive power chords from the 12-string. Finally, "Someone to Watch Over Me" (also culled from the audience shout-outs) concluded the main set in a bluesier though no less grandiose vein than usual.

For the encore, Jon asked for more titles, and they rolled in for a good stretch before he decided to take on the shortest ones. I can't say what time frame he had in mind, but I could hardly complain that he took on a good chunk of "Controversy," followed by snippets of the Velvet Underground, the Beatles (despite his earlier protests), Harry Nilsson, the Kinks, and his own title.

As a nightcap, Jon brought in Leonard Bernstein, while tickling out one of the classic Christmas tunes, one I've heard at least a couple of times before at Largo. I still yap endlessly about the version from four years ago, when Jon and friends performed "The Christmas Song" in the style of Sonic Youth, but the traditional touch is no small matter either. Listening to Jon's dreamy, jazzy take, you could almost forget the typical holiday madness swirling outside.

--Garfunkel & Oates opener
--Ruin My Day
--It Looks Like You
--She's At It Again
--Girl I Knew
--Please Stay Away From Me
--Knock Yourself Out
--Stop the World
--Psycho Killer/You Won't See Me/Paparazzi
--I Believe She's Lying
--Someone to Watch Over Me

--Controversy/Sweet Jane/Rocky Raccoon/Strings That Tie to You/My Old Desk/Waterloo Sunset
--The Christmas Song

See also:
» it's the end of the things you know
» public service announcement
» i'm offering this simple phrase

Saturday, December 25, 2010

all possibilities

This may be a first for me: The same night Badly Drawn Boy was scheduled to play upstairs at the Swedish American Hall, the honest-to-goodness Swedish Society held a meeting downstairs. Though we didn't have as many yummy snacks as the Swedes, I have no doubt Damon's gig matched them in December cheer.

Badly Drawn Boy, Swedish American Hall, 12-14-10Badly Drawn Boy, Swedish American Hall, December 14, 2010: I don't take recommendations lightly, and in fact, I refrain from making them except under specific circumstances--typically, after we've been locked in a room for weeks on end, I've noted every song you've ever sung or hummed to yourself, and I've issued major caveats in terms of which tune you might like and which ones to avoid. By the time I dredge up a name, it's more a warning than a tip, regardless of how much I love the artist.

Case in point: Badly Drawn Boy. I unequivocally love the guy, but there's always a question as to which Damon Gough will show up at any given concert. Will he be petulant, exultant, or cocky? And behind those faces, will he reveal the fanboy defending his devotion to Bruce Springsteen, the proud father who passes around pictures of his children to the audience, or the barfly who happens to be holding the microphone? There's only one way to find out: See him for yourself.

You could probably be forgiven for pigeonholing Damon based on his gruff appearance and confident sound bites, but take the time to listen, and his classic songwriting chops jump out. In a solo setting, those basics pop even more, notably his lovely voice and his way with melodies. "The Shining" is one for the ages, and it lived up to its legend this evening, but he changed up several tracks without a backing band behind him. For example, "Once Around the Block" benefited from his use of loopers, while on a lo-fi tip, we tried to help, as requested, with a whistling outro on "You Were Right."

Badly Drawn Boy, Swedish American Hall, 12-14-10

Damon wasn't entirely on his own, however. A few friends popped in, including Mike on electric guitar, Steve on piano, and the opener Justin Jones on tambourine. Steve almost stole the show with an old routine in which he made a grand gesture of holding up an index finger for all the audience to see, then used it to accompany Damon on "Magic in the Air." Less dramatically, he appeared to be using more than a single digit to fill out the rest of the song, but who cares when it sounds that good? Justin had a harder time keeping a straight face, but his grins and giggles spoke for all of us.

Badly Drawn Boy, Swedish American Hall, 12-14-10

Damon has never been shy about chatting it up between songs, and he didn't hold back tonight. Among the more inspired conversational threads was an extended riff on the audience handbook and its lessons on when we're allowed and/or encouraged to cheer, clap, and engage with the performer. We eventually picked up on the hints, though Damon continued to offer guidance when the instructions escaped us.

The solo setting also allowed Damon some leeway in his choice of covers, including Richie Havens' "I Can't Make It Anymore" early in the set and the standby "Like a Virgin" intro for the always fantastic "Silent Sigh." (Madonna also came up in Damon's own lyrics for "You Were Right.") But there's no doubt Damon saved the best for last when he cited a song from 1983 as a major influence on his life, explained his use of backing vocal tracks, then serenaded us with "Thunder Road." In the course of the performance, he shook hands with everyone in the front row of the audience before settling down in a chair to simply belt it out. If that isn't a sign of a man of the people, I don't know what is, and it's precisely this mix of humility and brashness that makes the best Badly Drawn Boy gigs so memorable.

Badly Drawn Boy, Swedish American Hall, 12-14-10

Justin Jones opened up the show, and he held his own against such a personality as Badly Drawn Boy. As a songwriter and performer, Justin is entirely in my wheelhouse with stark, emotional songs and deep delivery, leavened by sardonic asides and banter. I've seen his name show up on my local concert calendar now and again, and I plan to investigate further when he returns to town.

See also:
» a strong heart will prevail
» come see what we all talk about
» pre-easily fooled
» tell me that you've heard every sound there is

Monday, November 22, 2010

your favorite thing

This post has been brought to you by the good people at Noise Pop! In addition to putting on some of the finest music events in San Francisco, the kind staffers picked my name out of what I imagine to be a mountain of entries--you can't convince me otherwise--and awarded me with a pair of tickets to see Bob Mould. They not only allowed me to see a longtime favorite, they did it at the exact right time, as my concert calendar would've otherwise been empty for this month. Noise Pop, you have my undying loyalty!

Bob Mould, Swedish American Hall, 11-19-10Bob Mould, Swedish American Hall, November 19, 2010: On my way to work Friday morning, I listened to the Fresh Air podcast with Keith Richards, and the interview echoed in my brain throughout the day. Feel free to debate the Rolling Stones' relevance on your own time; the main point that stayed with me is Terry Gross's inquiry about the Rolling Stones' advancing years. In response, Keith mentioned that Count Basie and Duke Ellington were subject to the same barbs--this isn't a new question. (He also slurred some off-hand remark about getting on with it or some such generalization, but you get the point.)

I, for one, appreciated that shot of perspective, and for the first time ever, I kind of appreciate the fact that Keith and crew are still doing their thing, even if you'll never find me at a Stones show. And as a self-involved music fan, I couldn't help but think of its implications for my friends and myself, who are far beyond the teenage and 20-something demographic usually associated with this particular hobby.

On the heels of that interview, tonight's Bob Mould gig set off another round of rumination on music and maturity. I suppose you can levy some of the same complaints lodged against the Rolling Stones to someone like Bob--or anyone in the business for more than, say, five minutes--who's no longer the young punk we first saw in the '80s. I'd venture, though, that Bob has maintained his dignity and integrity, while remaining a vital artist, in a way that few other musicians can claim. Of course, that's my highly biased opinion, but to me, Bob stands as the epitome of a class act in an industry not known for decent role models.

...and if you stuck with me through that soapbox schpiel, you deserve to know how the show went. The evening's performance was billed as a solo acoustic show, and one of those adjectives turned out to be true. Yes, Bob was entirely on his own, but he brought along two guitars: one acoustic and one electric. Despite my adoration of Bob's mellower pieces, I also love when a Bob gig goes to 11; tonight, I didn't have to choose between the two.

I knew we were in for a solid night when, at the top of the set, Bob requested more guitar in his monitors because he felt like singing loud. As a friend mentioned at the end of the show, it's always a good idea to catch Bob at the start of the tour, before his voice is toast. Truer words were never spoken--Bob sounded better than I've heard him in years.

Bob Mould, Swedish American Hall, 11-19-10

Bob opened with the familiar triumvirate of "See a Little Light," "Hear Me Calling," and "Hoover Dam," and overall, the setlist shaped up to be a well-edited representation of his repertoire, ranging from Husker Du to his more recent releases. Bob's catalog runs so deep that no single setlist could possibly hit every highlight, and I know I can come up with a few left-field requests that may or may not go fulfilled. Still, I can't complain about the evenhanded appraisal of his career and, especially, his trademark unrelenting guitar attack. Bob's foray into dance music is well known at this point, but in this setting, you couldn't ignore the spartan roots that anchor his songs, including newer compositions such as "Circles"--simply fantastic tonight--and "Life and Times."

As mentioned above, Bob allowed himself the choice between electric and acoustic. He started out on acoustic, but another side came out when he donned the electric. Sporting the electric, Bob churned out song after song, in a stream of words, chords, and melodies, often without a break between titles. At times, the guitar seemed like an extension of him, and you could sense how it allows him to speak through fuzz and distortion.

Bob Mould, Swedish American Hall, 11-19-10

I honestly can't tell you how many times I've seen Bob in concert--I've lost track. But this show made known a side I haven't seen before. Bob was, in a word, talkative. Of course, there were the expected comments about a song's inspiration--for example, "Thumbtack" was written at a time when he was miserable and living in Austin--but Bob held forth on whole range of topics, from the pleasures of living in San Francisco to the Northeastern audience's disbelief of claims public nudity in his new hometown to his partner's shared history with Greg Dulli. Apparently, they worked in the same Cincinnati mall as teenagers. We especially enjoyed learning of Greg's former employer: Camelot Music.

Bob also revealed that Dave Grohl recently called him up to play on the upcoming Foo Fighters record. In Bob's telling, he thrashed out a note or two for Dave, who demanded to know what chord he'd just played. Bob's reply: My chord. Bob made no promises as to whether Dave and gang will keep his contributions, but keep your ears peeled. Also, if you're thinking that call was long overdue, I'm with you! But Bob seemed cool with the acknowledgment, and that's good enough for me.

When you watch certain performers, you have no doubt that they were meant for the stage; other artists, however, take their time in reaching those comfort levels, but if you stick around for the journey, it's hugely rewarding to see them hit their stride. I can think of several examples of the latter, many of whom are my favorite artists. Bob easily qualifies as one of them--on both counts, now that I mention it. I've never seen him more at ease in front of audience, especially on his own and not as part of a band. The most telling moment of the night may have been when he commented matter-of-factly, "I love this song," and launched into the epic "Brasilia Crossed with Trenton." He's in good company on that count.

Bob may have worked his way to a discussion of his upcoming memoirs on his own volition, but we didn't have to wait long, as the audience jogged his memory early on. Amid declarations of "you're hot" from both male and female voices, one person asked flat out, "What have you been up to?" Bob duly reported that he hasn't written any new music; instead, his energies have gone into writing his book, set to be released in June 2011. He laid out some of the history, including his turning down the initial offer about a decade ago. He cited Michael Azerrad as an influence on both his decision and his authorship, and he promised us it'll be a good read. I'd expect no less from him.

See also:
» listen, there's music in the air
» i want something that's warm and honest

Monday, October 18, 2010

if these things make your day

Although Rocktober is in full swing around these parts, my blog will not reflect the grand span of events and opportunities available to the gig-going public. In fact, it won't represent a narrow view either, but certain shows can't be missed, and Teenage Fanclub at the Great American Music Hall is non-negotiable.

Teenage Fanclub, Great American Music Hall, 10-12-01Teenage Fanclub, Great American Music Hall, October 12, 2010: Say what you will about social networking, but I've greatly enjoyed tracking Teenage Fanclub's recent tour across the United States via my friends' status updates, mobile uploads, and reports. It also whetted my appetite for the band's eventual appearance on the western shores of this great country, even if the show was moved from the Fillmore to the Great American Music Hall.

It was the right decision. The Fillmore is certainly a milestone for any touring band, but it's simply too big for a band like Teenage Fanclub. Besides, the Great American is by far the best venue in San Francisco, and it was a perfect fit for the group--and it made for the best show on the tour, according to the drummer.

I hold a soft, squishy spot in my heart for Teenage Fanclub for many reasons, one of which can be pinned to pure coincidence: Teenage Fanclub first showed up on the U.S. scene around the time I started college. In terms of demographics, we were perfect for each other, but over the years, many more happy accidents came up. For example, they had a habit of signing with my favorite record labels, including Matador, Creation, and many years on, Merge. Add in the fact that Man-Made was recorded in a studio where at least a few other beloved albums were birthed--and let's not forget the boost they gave to a little alt-country outfit out of Belleville, Missouri, in the early days. These guys are rock royalty, as far as I'm concerned.

Teenage Fanclub, Great American Music Hall, 10-12-01

However, these credentials take a backseat to the glorious music the band has made over the years. If jangly guitars, honeyed harmonies, and airy choruses are your thing, there are no finer practitioners in the land. (Also, we should talk.) Bandwagonesque may be the favorite among the diehards, but Grand Prix will always be my pet (sounds). Just listen to the six opening tracks--aka the most perfect starting lineup I can think of. There was even a time when I bought every orphaned copy of Grand Prix that showed up in the CD racks, just so I could pass them on to friends and acquaintances.

I also remember buying Songs from Northern Britain when it was released, but it took several years for the songs to fully grow on me. Nowadays, I easily count "Ain't That Enough," "Mount Everest," and "Your Love Is the Place Where I Come From" among my most beloved tracks among the Fannies' entire discography.

Teenage Fanclub, Great American Music Hall, 10-12-01

With that much history to contend with, the band may never be able to cobble together any single-night setlist that covers everything the audience wants to hear, and this being a Teenage Fanclub crowd, all sorts of obscure requests filled the air. (Do you really think they're ever going to do "Radio" or anything from Thirteen?!)

Teenage Fanclub, Great American Music Hall, 10-12-01However, the band seems to know its strengths and requirements, so we got a good sampling of their history, with a slight emphasis where you'd expect. As might be anticipated of a promotional tour, they hit up the new album Shadows for several songs, each of which Norman prefaced, in case we hadn't gotten around to listening to it. Man-Made got one slot with "It's All in My Mind," then it was time for all those songs that have long worked their way into our consciousness.

I bounded like Tigger when I recognized the opening notes of "Sparky's Dream," and the whole front of the room showed its love for classic tracks, such as the first-set closer "The Concept." The band reserved the big three ("Everything Flows," "Star Sign," and "What You Do to Me") until the very end, but such setlist shenanigans were hardly necessary. For those who've waited the five years since their last visit, every song is a smash, and we'll stick around to hear every last note.

See also:
» we get older every year

Friday, October 15, 2010

way more real than real

Despite appearances on this blog, I haven't lost my enthusiasm for live music, but other priorities come up, and I'm making peace with the idea of not seeing every band that comes through town -- or, more pointedly, necessitates a trip outside of city limits (sigh, but more on that later). In fact, I probably would've skipped Aimee Mann's three-night stand at Yoshi's entirely if it weren't for a friend's visit, so I'm glad for the intervening influence.

Aimee Mann, Yoshi's, October 8, 2010: Those of you on Facebook may have been tagged in the relatively recent meme in which you list your 15 favorite albums in 15 minutes. I did my part, but I still feel pangs of regret over names I missed. High among them: Aimee Mann (and, well, women in general). If I had five more slots, Bachelor No. 2 would be right there!

Despite my brain fart, Aimee easily ranks as one of my favorite songwriters, and her live show has come a long way from her self-proclaimed nervousness of earlier outings. In the right place and with the right players, she really hits her groove. This gig came through on both points. For one, Aimee was joined by Paul Bryan and Jamie Edwards, rounding out the "acoustic Moog trio" she debuted around the time of Smilers. Secondly, the venue suited them beautifully--a proper, intimate room with seated arrangements, fine acoustics, and a loving crowd, not unlike that old place on Fairfax Avenue and, at the least, a far cry from the Arrow Stage at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.

Setting the scene, a guy in the audience even yelled out, "I live for you!" shortly after Aimee took the stage. Rather than being creeped out, Aimee embraced it. To the fan's credit, who could blame him? Aimee looked fantastic in an ensemble topped by what appeared to be a blazer from Rico's husky boys collection. ("Is that what 'ragazzi robusti' means?")

The heart of this show appeared to be the new material Aimee is writing for a musical based on The Forgotten Arm, her concept album from a few years ago. Among the new titles were a duet with Paul Bryan and another tune she called the most depressing song she's ever written--which is saying a lot, considering her back catalog. If the lyrics are anything to go by, the title of that tearjerker may be something along the not at all forboding lines of "It's Easy to Die."

Another twist on the typical Aimee Mann show was her additional instrumentation--namely, her work on the high hat, operated by foot. With Paul mostly on bass and Jamie on piano and keyboards, Aimee supplemented her contributions on guitar with a touch of percussion. It was a nice embellishment, and it helped replicate the rich sound that's a hallmark of her albums.

In addition to tracks from The Forgotten Arm, Aimee focused on material from the Magnolia soundtrack and Lost in Space. Oddly, nothing from the earliest albums surfaced, which is always a bit of a downer to me, though I loved what I heard too.

If I had to name my favorite Aimee show, it'd be a toss-up between the two gigs I saw at the old Largo: the first one for revealing another side of her live personality, the second for the outright humor. At both shows, the song that became "Medicine Wheel" jumped out at me. At its debut, Aimee mentioned it was an attempt to write a song like Fiona Apple's, but tonight, she talked a little more about its origins as a poem by her sister that she set to music. And just as with that first performance, she started it on piano, but was soon joined by Jamie, who provided the more expansive and mellifluous notes.

In between songs, Aimee talked a lot. Much of the material centered on explaining the new musical, but she got in other fun asides, including a diss on the poetry appearing in The New Yorker and laments about the state of her hair. It's safe to say that Aimee has and continues to evolve as a live performer, one whom I'll enjoy watching for years to come.

See also:
» i'm the stuff of happy endings
» amateur
» today's the day

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

watch the waves and move the fader

Last week, I managed to hurt myself in a manner that would probably be hilarious if (1) it were caught on video and (2) it happened to someone else. This ridiculous injury, along with my bruised ego, almost kept me away from Hardly Strictly Bluegrass this year, but the combination of good prescription anti-inflammatories and the muted music heard through my window convinced me I should at least hoof it down the street. I'm glad I did--so thanks Warren Hellman, the Hardly Strictly crew, and Big Pharma for making it all possible!

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, October 1-3, 2010: There's no question that Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is an awesome festival on many levels, from the caliber of talent to the pure volume of acts to, well, its proximity to my apartment. And need I repeat that it's all free?

But I gotta say that it also puts the "fuck" in "clusterfuck." After you've worked your way to a reasonable spot that's merely partly obscured by the tall dude in a hat a few paces ahead, only to have the thousandth person cut in front of you, shoehorning themselves into a space you'd previously thought was uninhabitable for all but underage Chinese gymnasts, it's easy to forget the generous spirit and intent that brought us all together.

Or so I thought on Saturday, but by Sunday night, I had changed my tune completely. It helped that the park felt less crowded this year, no doubt a result of the numerous activities crowding the social calendar around the Bay Area this weekend, including the celebratory Giants games on the other side of town and the separate Flaming Lips and Arcade Fire shows in Oakland and Berkeley, respectively. Long story short: I appreciated the breathing room, and I think it made a difference in the overall experience.

This year, I wasn't committed to seeing any particular performer, and I had no desire to augur in, but anyone who knows me should be aware that I can't leave the house without at least a loose plan for the day. In a way, it was the best of both worlds: a leisurely morning, a casual stroll, and music at the end of the journey.

On Saturday, it started with Fountains of Wayne at the Towers of Gold stage, the farthest and sanest outpost of the festival, where it was easy enough to get down to the front about 15 minutes before the band started. I'm pretty sure it was the first time I've seen Fountains of Wayne, unless I've forgotten some radio-sponsored festival appearance back in the '90s (a distinct possibility). The fanboys situated front and center were clearly pleased with the song selection, but even a blank slate like myself could appreciate their way with power chords and a chorus. I don't think they did the big hit "Stacy's Mom," but I can verify that "Radiation Vibe" made it into the set, which was the song I had hoped to hear.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2010

The festival organizers did a great job of staggering the sets on the Towers of Gold and Star stages this year, so you could stroll to the other side and watch the next band, or you could stay in your place and listen to the performance over the PA. On Saturday, I elected to flex the legs and check out the Star Stage for Conor Oberst's performance, but truthfully, I needn't have bothered. I barely saw the stage from my vantage, and I'm not much of a Conor fan anyway. For a handful of songs, Conor was joined by a couple of guests: Jason Boesel, best known as the drummer from Rilo Kiley (though I've seen him drop in at Largo on at least one occasion), and the Felice Brothers, who chipped in with gorgeous harmonies and rich accordion accompaniment.

I probably could've stayed in the western quadrant for Richard Thompson's set, but I opted to catch Gillian Welch and David Rawlings instead. I had few illusions about positioning--there was no way I'd get anywhere close to the Banjo Stage, so I found a spot on the hill. The view was fine, but the the overall impression was less satisfactory.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2010

The argument for being an early freak is that the area closer to the stage is typically devoid of idle chatter and random distractions. Of course, you can't really compare a club gig to a free festival attended by 600,000 people, but it was my misfortune to be surrounded by the chattering class, some of whom claimed to be fans. In all likelihood, they were, but under such conditions, it's not always easy to focus on a performance from half a football field away.

Add to that Gillian and Dave's song selection, which opened with "Long Black Veil," inspired by the cold mist blowing across the park as they took the stage, and mostly stayed at that tempo throughout their set. This is hardly unusual for a Gillian Welch show, but again, it was hard to compete with the random blather and the shenanigans out in the nosebleeds.

The final demerit might've been the technical problems that popped up during the set. Gillian referred to troubles with her guitar, and Dave ran to the side of the stage several times to talk to the sound masters. I sensed the mix dipping and climbing the entire time they were onstage--it probably wasn't ideal for them either.

And finally, I have to share a quote from a woman standing not five feet away from me because I love documenting other people's cluelessness when it comes Gillian Welch and David Rawlings: "I've been wanting to see her for a long time. But I don't know who that is playing next to her." Sigh. To be fair, a couple of guys in front of me were talking shop about Dave's guitar, but I'm pretty sure they represent the minority opinion.

That's not to say it was all dirges and dread; "Look at Miss Ohio" elicited what sounded like a huge, loving sigh across the field, and Gillian rolled out a long, affectionate intro for Dave, citing his talents as a painter, a poet, and a fisherman, among other traits, before he took his turn on the mic with "Hear Them All." Dave Grisman and Conor Oberst guested on a few tunes, and for all the music I heard over the weekend, I still can't get "Revelator" out of my brain--that's powerful stuff.

I was torn in two directions by Sunday's schedule, but simple logistics killed any notion of attempting to hit the Rooster Stage, so it was back to Towers of Gold/Star for a fantastic sequence of artists. My festival day opened with Randy Newman, one of the names that jumped out at me when I first saw this year's lineup; it seemed that other people shared my anticipation, judging by our respectful silence while he played his tunes, aside from a couple of songs where we contributed harmonies as Randy requested.

Like many great singer/songwriters, he's mostly known to me through other people's covers, but I recognized several titles, including "Marie" and "Sail Away." He didn't neglect the hits "Short People" and "I Love LA" either, but the most enjoyable portion of his show was probably the banter. In addition to sharing the inspiration for some songs, including one in which he sent up his own dinosaur status, he reeled off a curmudgeonly and score-centric retelling of the Toy Story series that I'll probably never hear anywhere else. (Also: It was hilarious.)

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2010

I stayed put while Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes played on the other side of the field, but the sound came through loud and clear over the speakers. Elvis has become a staple of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass after his buoyant festival debut a few years back, and he continues to mix it up at each appearance. He juggled new tracks, old favorites ("Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes"), perennial classics ("Brilliant Mistake"), rarer cuts ("New Amsterdam" mashed up with "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away"), and unexpected covers (the Stones' "Happy") in a folksier vein, complete with mandolin and dobro, instead of the all-out electric barrage from his rock shows. He sounded fantastic, and considering it was pretty much equivalent to my viewing of Conor Oberst the day before, I know I made the right decision.

Patti Smith was next on the bill back at Towers of Gold. I have no problem admitting I've always admired her more for what she symbolizes than for her music. She too is another artist whose work I mostly know through covers, but she up-ended every single expectation I had. In a word, she was empowering--a description I almost never use for any musical artist. Maybe it's the third-wave feminism talking, but I've never looked at my favorite female musicians as exceptions to any rule. They've earned their respect not because of their gender; it's always come down to talent.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2010

But watching Patti Smith, I finally understood everything she's achieved and the trails she's blazed for so many artists, male and female. She opened big with "Dancing Barefoot," and around me, I saw grown women weeping and shaking--and I wasn't far behind! Her set was about as varied as you could expect for someone who's known for not just her music but her poetry and her contributions to the American art scene for the last 30-odd years. In the course of her performance, she referenced William Blake, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Jim Carroll; assailed the former U.S. presidential administration; read the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi; and urged us to live our lives to the fullest extent possible. Along the way, she worked in her most famous tracks, such as "Because the Night" and "Gloria," as well as another Stones cover in the form of "Play with Fire."

Most striking, she managed to do it all while looking simultaneously happy, fierce, biting, welcoming, and iconic. Heck, she waved joyously at every side of the open stage before stepping up to the mic, and we waved back without hesitation. If she had any issues balancing her personae or her muses, she showed no sign of it. She appeared completely at ease in her own skin, and she seemed determined to share that spirit with us.

It goes without saying that she and her band sounded fantastic too. Led by Lenny Kaye, the musicians anchored Patti's words with the force they deserved. I had expected to admire and appreciate Patti; I had no idea she'd move me to such an extent.

But wait, there's more! Although I held little hope of getting to the Rooster Stage, it was on my way out of the park and back home, so I stopped by to see if I could catch a glimpse of the closer in that quarter, the miraculous Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. My suspicions were correct--it would've been a death wish to try to cantilever yourself into the field proper.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival 2010

However, there was an alternative, if you didn't mind the threat of poison oak inflaming your ankles or ants crawling over your body. In this case, I didn't, so I took my place with the scores of like-minded attendees who blanketed the woods right outside of the official festival grounds. No, I'm not talking about those lovely venues carved out of the fields and hillsides, such as the Pines Theater or the Greek Theatres in Berkeley or Los Angeles--this was the wilds of Golden Gate Park, conveniently separated from the designated festival limits by a flimsy fence.

Even better, the natural 20-degree grade provided one of the best views I enjoyed all weekend, and the crowds were much more manageable. The only downside was the sound, which hadn't been mixed with us hill people in mind, but that's a small price to pay. As for Sharon, she was out of this world, and dancing was rampant across the forest.

I don't think it's too early to say it: See you next year, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass!

See also:
» now I try to be amused
» feels lucky to have you here
» play one more for my radio sweetheart
» searching for light in the darkness of insanity
» amateur

Friday, October 01, 2010

simple twist of fate

I've clocked exactly one gig in September, and for various reasons, this may be the trend for a while--but all in due time. Until that ugly day arrives, however, you're allowed to take a wild guess at the show that forced me out of the cave. And if you figured anyone other than Jon Brion at Largo, you've clearly been reading the wrong blog.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, September 24, 2010: I have to tell you the truth--if my gig-going life truly comes down to seeing, say, only two artists and skipping everyone else, I wouldn't mind too much. You could, in fact, argue it's already reached that point, but if it truly comes to pass--well, at least it'll help clear out your RSS feeds.

Though he didn't have the excuse of jet lag this time, Jon appeared onstage in an unusually casual outfit for the second month in a row. To start off, he gave his fingers a nice workout on the piano with a tune I should probably know. It sounded a bit like Duke Ellington, but I'm pathetically ignorant of the era and the genre. If you have a better hunch, send them my way.

Jon leafed through his own catalog for the next several songs. "Same Mistakes" traded the studio version's simplicity for a rich piano bridge; the reverb rung out on "She's At It Again"; "Piece of You" downright rocked as always; and "Trial and Error" returned to the lineup for the first time in a long time.

Roxy Music, More Than ThisThe first cover of the night was Jon's pick, as he lined up footage of the old-time Latino band we haven't seen for a while and matched it up to Leopold Stokowski. The result: "More Than This." This song was on heavy rotation on my cassette/record/CD player long before I heard Jon's version, but it's taken on another life with his interpretation. How did I ever miss its easy beat? How did he dig his way under all those layers of synthesizers and production? And why is that other cover version I sometimes hear over department store PAs so lame in comparison?

Jon revisited his oeuvre for a couple more songs. He delivered "Love of My Life So Far" on acoustic guitar in a more emphatic form than typical, downplaying its overtly comical tones. "Croatia," on the other hand, seemed to revel in its swampiness and weirdness, leaning in the direction of Tom Waits instead of my usual reference, Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac.

"Croatia," as I've stated before, is my go-to request whenever it feels like the show is taking a turn for the morose, maudlin, or murky, but I had no such outlet as Jon pulled off the double header of "Round Midnight" and "Please Stay Away From Me." As it turned out, I didn't have to wait long to lodge a request.

It's probably safe to say that you can count on a significant percentage of newbies at any Jon Brion show these days, so you get a bit more exposition at certain points of the performance. For example, Jon often prefaces the Les Paul portion of the show with a few words of explanation, partly to educate the audience and partly to pay proper tribute to the "looping elders," as he noted.

AdventurelandThe advantage to being an old-timer in these instances is that you often pick up on the signs a little earlier than the freshmen and, thus, can get your request in before everyone else. Also, I had a very specific tune in mind, thanks to a couple of viewings of the movie Adventureland the week before. My suggestion was "Satellite of Love." Jon took a little while to build up the song. At first, it leaned heavily in the Western direction, but the parts slowly came together and, in the process, gave us a glimpse into how music happens at all. I'm biased, but I loved it, and I'm glad we got to hear Lou Reed through another prism.

I believe another request led to "Strawberry Fields Forever" on vibes. I'm not sure who asked for it, but I heard the people behind me veritably squeal at the performance.

Roxy Music, Take a Chance on MeFor the encore, Jon brought out Robyn Hitchcock, who had played the very same stage, though in a different capacity, just the night before. Robyn and Jon tuned and futzed, and Robyn asked if they were allowed to tell us what they had in mind, but they didn't actually share their intentions. Instead, they launched--after the tuning and the futzing, of course--into Robyn's selection, which practically made me fall out of my chair. I assume Robyn was inspired by "More Than This" because he kicked off with "The Main Thing" from the same Roxy Music album, though he also threw "Are You Experienced" in the mix--because he can.

For the closer, Jon was on his own with "Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometimes," stretched out to 30 minutes or so. Along the way, he called up Andres Segovia, a full orchestra, a young Eric Clapton, and a guitar teacher from an instructional DVD, but make no mistake--Jon drove this half-hour effort, launching another shot of guitar into it at several points when the coda otherwise loomed.

With the song properly dispatched, we moved the party to the Little Room. It's always hard to predict how much of the crowd will carry over from the main performance, and tonight, the Little Room was perhaps only half full.

Jon and Robyn showed up first in different outfits, and Robyn even flaunted his earlier costume just so that we could revel in its full Technicolor glory, I suppose. At this point, I should reiterate Robyn's crucial role in my early shows at Largo. I think it was my third or fourth visit to Largo, but it was probably the first time I fully understood the club's appeal and potential. Because I'm a total nerd, I not only documented my recollections of the evening, I was able to locate the account many years after the fact. Check it out for yourself: Take Me Home, Country Pigeon.

Tonight's second set started up in no less auspicious a manner when Robyn promised/threatened to carry out the rest of Avalon. Robyn got two more numbers in, while Jon accompanied him exquisitely on piano, but the medley came to a halt when Jon requested one of Robyn's own songs. He claimed to give us a new one; I have no reason to disbelieve him, but I don't know enough of Robyn's vast catalog to verify or shoot down that remark. During this original track, Jon took on the role of percussionist, using his feet, hands, and parts of his body to supply the beat. If it brings to mind Bobby McFerrin, you're on the right track.

Sebastian Steinberg, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins rolled up onstage at Jon's urging, and we even saw a couple of those real-time introductions, as is often the case at Largo. With this assemblage, Roxy Music gave way to another concentration: Bob Dylan. In round-robin style, each pulled out their favorite Dylan tune, including a couple of audience requests.

Several of the titles brought out surprising touches from the musicians. For example, "She Belongs to Me" featured acoustic slide guitar from Jon, and it inspired a couple of patterns that we'd see again during the course of these performances. One was Robyn's charming habit of singing off-mic, and the other was the spontaneous addition of background harmonies from whoever wasn't on lead. Despite Robyn's words of caution about the song's beat, they knocked "Subterranean Homesick Blues" out of the park, and I jumped again to hear Robyn's lackadaisical take on "Simple Twist of Fate," a song that's become a staple in sets by that other singer/songwriter who crowds these blog entries.

I have no problem admitting I'm not a Dylan fan, and I know his music mostly through other people's interpretations. But watching this group in action, it became evident to me that Dylan is the lingua franca of Largo. Heck, I say this as a Beatles fan, and lord knows, I've seen some Beatles-centric shows over the years. But I don't think I've seen any gathering of musicians in the Little Room perform a single artist's songs with such relish before. This laid to rest any questions I may have had over the room's true patron saint, and it definitely made for another memorable night in the Little Room.

Set 1
--Same Mistakes
--She's At It Again
--Piece of You
--Trial and Error
--More Than This
--Love of My Life So Far
--Round Midnight
--Please Stay Away From Me
--Satellite of Love
--Strawberry Fields

--The Main Thing/Are You Experienced [with Robyn Hitchcock]
--Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometimes

Set 2
with Robyn Hitchock
--Take a Chance with Me
--To Turn You On

with Robyn Hitchock, Sebastian Steinberg, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins
--She Belongs to Me
--Subterranean Homesick Blues
--I'll Be Your Baby Tonight
--If You Gotta Go, Go Now
--It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
--Simple Twist of Fate
--Positively Third Street
--Farewell Angelina
--My Back Pages
--Don't Think Twice It's Alright

See also:
» Take Me Home, Country Pigeon
» all the ladies and gentlemen
» don't give yourself away
» i remember finding out about you

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

all the ladies and gentlemen

What's the only thing that can make me skip town and miss a musical meeting between two of my favorite artists? An even more intimate show with that other favorite musician, of course. Thus, I bid adieu to Los Angeles (by way of Ontario) and said hello to Chicago for our sixth annual show with Jeff Tweedy at the Hotel S'n'S.

Jeff Tweedy, Hotel S'n'S, August 28, 2010: Ordinarily, it'd be hard to get excited over a six-year milestone unless you're, say, a U.S. senator up for reelection. Five years is much easier to wrap your head around--there's even a convenient Bowie anthem (just don't pay too much attention to the lyrics). But six years? You're kinda on your own.

However, the number was less important to us than other circumstances of this gathering. Rumor has it that this will be the last year that Jeff and Susan Tweedy will offer a concert as part of the Letters to Santa auction. You can hardly blame the Tweedys--these engagements require a massive amount of coordination among all parties, which is one of the reasons we couldn't convene until a good eight months after the auction itself. Also, we've been known to wring a lot of songs out of Jeff; it's no exaggeration to say we get every penny's worth from him. If this development turns out to be true, of course we'll be sad to miss out on the show, but we'll be even sadder without our annual reunion to look forward to.

This intel hung over us somewhat throughout the day, but it couldn't put a damper on our celebration, and it definitely didn't stop us from enjoying each other's company. In fact, this may have been the most relaxed I've felt at any of our shows in all this time. The food-to-people ratio remained ridiculous but manageable, the greetings were sweaty and heartfelt, and the furious last-minute scrapbooking yielded what I hope were charmingly ragged results. We even had a keg!

That's not to say all this happens automatically. Even under more casual concert conditions, we've been known to plot and prepare a bit (or more) behind the scenes when we know it'll help bring about the desired outcome. In the case of these shows with Jeff, he gets a prospective list of requests ahead of time so that he isn't caught unaware; we often supply lyrics as well, though on-site Googling and printing aren't unheard of. This year, we also had a recording rig in place, though I think we've all made peace with the idea that an audio memento of the night may or may not surface. (Some years, of course, we've had no choice in the matter.)

Hotel SnS, 08-28-2010

We had another provision in place for this outing: The newbies would get first crack at the requests so that their turns wouldn't be lost in the mix. They chipped in with some good ones, including an Elizabeth Cotten cover, and one of our newer compatriots even got to play with Jeff on "Impossible Germany."

I want to mention that our goal is never to stump Jeff; rather, we just want to hear the melding of some of those classic lyrics and melodies with his distinctive voice and phrasings. He was more than up for the challenge this year, interpreting songs by the aforementioned Elizabeth Cotten (it's worth repeating), as well as Harry McClintock and Creedence Clearwater Revival, and he returned to more familiar territory with Bob Dylan and Richard and Mimi Farina.

uilleann pipesOf all these wonderful covers, I need to single out two in particular: Neil Young's "Look Out for My Love," which became an impromptu duet with our indispensable Canadian ambassador, and the Pogues' "Dirty Old Town," a wish finally fulfilled after several attempts, albeit without the accompaniment of any pipes, uilleann or otherwise. As we discussed later, maybe the spirit of the last show finally motivated him to dispatch the Pogues tune--but far be it from us to look this gift horse in the mouth. The bottom line: Score!

Of course, Jeff's songs figured most prominently in this set, both from side projects and across the entire history of Wilco. Paul came prepared for "Childlike and Evergreen," but the 7-inch single remained safely tucked away, as Jeff performed it without the audio aid. Both Martin and Jeff had fun with "Kamera," and Johnny's request netted us the relatively rare "Country Disappeared." I feel obligated to lodge a small complaint that Jeff couldn't remember how to play my request (though he wrote it?!?), but here's hoping that a future show--preferably one that I'm attending--will benefit from the reminder.

Hotel SnS, 08-28-2010

I honestly don't mind if this does turn out to be the last show we get to do with Jeff, but the final songs on the setlist helped us achieve the sense of closure. We couldn't leave without our customary capper, the "Candyfloss" singalong and dance party, but its immediate predecessor summed up everything we've ever felt and wanted to say during this six-year span of shows--and, in some cases, our even lengthier friendships. From the moment we first heard Wilco covering this Big Star tune during the band's spring "evening with" sojourn, I knew it had to be a part of our final gig. The song, of course, is "Thank You Friends," which is pretty much all you need to say at this point (not that it's stopped me from rambling on for far too long).

Every year has been a gift, and I continue to be amazed that we could sustain the shows for this long. No doubt I'll see many of these gorgeous faces in future adventures, but it won't be the same until we can gather under one roof again. It's worth repeating: Thank you, friends!

Thank you, friends!

The full history
» i wish that i knew what I know now
» people say i'm crazy doing what i'm doing
» the message
» that year
» springtime comes
» turn our prayers to outrageous dares
» every day is dreamlike
» it's been a while

Saturday, September 04, 2010

anything goes

I made some noise over the last couple of months about not being able to attend Jon Brion's August show, but things worked out, as they're wont to do when you jump through hoops of fire to get the result you crave. I can safely say I made the correct decision, but decide for yourself after reading the report.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, August 27, 2010: Last month, Jon Brion put on a fine, if relatively brief show, so you may understand why I wanted to come back. As any overly committed fan tell you, hope springs eternal that the next visit will yield a gig of more typical proportions. The thing is, I would've felt the same way if Jon had turned in a marathon session. There's just no satisfying some of us, I suppose.

Mamoun's Falafel RestaurantOn this visit, the latter scenario eventually prevailed, but the indicators weren't necessarily there at the beginning of the night. Flanny explained in his intro that Jon had just returned to the United States after biking around Europe for a month (sources not verified), and Jon too referred to his recent sojourn overseas. In case we needed a better clue, Jon's choice of T-shirt gave a small indication that he'd been out of town.

Also during his intro, Flanny made a comment to the soundbooth about the reverb on the mic making him sound like the J. Geils Band, and I couldn't resist the urge to yell out, "Centerfold!" at him. I didn't expect, however, that Jon would grab onto the cheesy hit as an intro for the musical portion of the evening, alternating between bits of piano improv and quotes from the song's chorus for his opening exercise. This tongue-in-cheek preamble eventually led to a more abstract and poignant form, far removed from that initial refrain.

As is customary at Jon's shows, he kicked off a string of originals from several points in his career. "Same Mistakes" was straightforward and sincere; "Piece of You" showed off a bit of emoting; and "That's Just What You Are" came through with a more psychedelic feel, featuring bendy guitar notes. Meanwhile, "The Way It Went" returned to the lineup, this time with a falsetto ending, and a downtempo undertone, in notable contrast to its exultant chorus, anchored "Same Thing."

Now came the time for Jon to ask for requests, and he allowed the crowd to simply shout at him for several minutes. Sitting in the audience, you can feel overwhelmed by the noise, but judging by the cacophonous recording Jon played back to us of our entreaties, we have it easy. Regardless, Jon picked out the most "evil" request he'd heard and ran with it: a fuzzed-out, almost My Bloody Valentine-esque "Kokomo." For those keeping track at home, this marked the second time I simultaneously gasped and giggled at his selections tonight.

It was back to the drums and his own catalog for "So I Fell in Love With You," in which he supplied the audience with a gorgeous visual of the Gretsch resting against the kick drum, while the guitar solo blasted out through the loopers. Jon's hands were hardly idle, though; he was at the piano for that portion of the show and even had a little time to mime some hand-over-heart movements to follow the narrative.

After this barn burner, Jon called on his army of backing musicians, their collaborations made possible by the wonders of modern audiovisual technology. The first was Andres Segovia, and Jon isolated the footage of the guitarist to a few notes of exquisitely executed fingerpicking. He matched up Andres with a clip of the Mills Brothers singing "I Ain't Got Nobody," which Jon later set in reverse. (Full disclosure: I had no knowledge of the Mills Brothers before I sat down to write this post, but the Internet is indeed good for something.)

With some tinkering, Jon worked the two contributions into a sound bed for "Strings That Tie to You." It wasn't the most elegant version of the song I've heard, but it probably provided a lesson to all the gear heads in the room on how Jon constructs the song's foundation.

Papa Jo JonesJon next introduced Papa Jo Jones on the second screen to join Andres. Besides being, hands down, the coolest-looking drummer I've ever seen, Papa Jo added a touch of high hat and kick drum, while Jon piled in with the MicroKorg and the piano. Brad Mehldau figured in this confluence as well, all leading to my third a-ha moment of the evening: a jazzy view of "Tainted Love." I can safely say that our corner of the room attempted a singalong that may have reached Jon's ears, but overall, this was not an audience-driven performance of the song. Still, it was great to hear, especially Brad's surprisingly haunting coda to the tune.

Jon's shows this summer have hardly been solitary efforts, but the usual suspects have been scarce around Largo, probably due to their own touring and recording commitments, I figure. It wasn't too surprising, then, to see some of the old gang returning to the old stomping grounds in the weeks leading up to the fall season. First up was Sebastian Steinberg and his stand-up bass.

Sebastian and Jon attempted "Enjoy the Silence," based on an audience request, but Jon quickly called off the expedition, claiming it had "a million chord changes." It also appeared that no one knew the lyrics--so much for that suggestion. "Anything Goes" fared much better; if you closed your eyes, you could almost imagine yourself gathered around the wireless, listening to the tune and awaiting FDR's fireside chat.

Less era-authentic, the two channeled "Purple Haze" as an Eastern European folk song. Jon's fantastic reading of the line "Excuse me while I kiss the sky" drew several roars from the crowd and moved Sebastian to remind us that we were watching, in his words, "Jon Brion on jet lag." If Jon was operating on anything less than all cylinders, it was impossible to detect. They may have continued in this Bohemian spirit for "Stairway to Heaven," or it could've been pure improv between the two. I can never tell when we get into Zeppelin territory, so don't take my word for it.

Next up was Fiona Apple for couple of her usual standards, and her very presence brought me back to the early days of Largo at the Coronet. Remember when there was no Little Room? And instead, the musicians would convene around the omnidirectional mic, spreading out across the stage in a way that hadn't been possible with the old Fairfax address? I know some old-schoolers pooh-pooh those early shows at the Coronet, but I have few complaints about the inaugural gigs.

Anyway, Jon was left to himself to close out the set, and his first selection was, well, the theme to Two and a Half Men. He revealed that it was the only thing on while he and Bret were recently in London to work on a record (I don't know what record, and I never bother asking anymore), and the song had worked its way into his brain.

With that title dispatched, Jon asked for requests again. After some deliberation, he moved to the vibes for the Peanuts Christmas theme, which soon morphed into "Heroes." Jon had at first registered resistance to the Bowie tune, noting that he'd covered it recently (just last month, as a matter of fact), but on the vibes, it felt like a completely different song. I, for one, love the 30-minute build-up and catharsis of the fully looped treatment, but the piece lost none of its allure with its bones laid bare in this incredibly intimate interpretation.

Jon returned for an encore, which kicked off with a bar or two of "Take 5," but soon catapulted in another direction altogether. Jon asked for requests and titles ricocheted around the walls--until someone asked for "Africa" by Toto. A few more voices supported this campaign, and all of sudden, we had a democratic groundswell. Jon perked up too and announced it was "loud rock cover band time."

This is where the reporting gets tough, partly because I'm inherently weak in this genre, partly because Jon kept up a blistering pace through this cycle, and partly because I was too busy enjoying the spectacle to take notes. I'm not sure we actually heard "Africa" during this session, but Jon did give us "Hold the Line," another notable Toto track.

From there, he threw a million famous licks at us, each of which inspired shouts of joy from various sections of the audience. I caught Cream, the Kinks, the Beatles, and Bowie ("Suffragette City," no less!), but that's just a fraction of what Jon churned out.

When the guitar proved insufficient, Jon looped in drums and more, and Sebastian joined the fun too on electric bass. They kicked out "Misty Mountain Hop," a song I know almost exclusively based on performances at Largo, but in the middle, Jon mixed it up again with nods to T. Rex and Foreigner, to name just two of the sources. As if that weren't enough, he went off on a particularly esoteric jag that made me wonder if he was warming up for his show with Nels Cline the following night. But they brought it back to "Misty Mountain Hop" for the real conclusion to the set.

I don't think anyone would've begrudged Jon for wrapping up the show at this point, especially in light of his jet lag--but there was still more show to come in the Little Room. For this second set, Sean Watkins handled the opening duties, with the help of Sebastian Steinberg on bass and Tyler Chester on piano. Erin McLaughlin also joined in for a song before Fiona and Jon made their way to the front of the room.

Jon chipped in with guitar and harmonies, but even with Sean ostensibly at the helm of this casual operation, Jon piped up with his own contributions. For example, amid their discussion of murder ballads and writing about what you know, Jon threw in a couplet for a prospective song about the housing bubble. We also witnessed a rare sight: Jon on stand-up bass while Sebastian handled lead vocals and guitar for a George Jones song.

By the end of the set, Jon and Sean were equally in charge, trading off vocal duties as ideas occurred to them. Jon's option, "Juanita," might've been an instrumental if it weren't for the audience member in the crowd who knew most of the words. Instead, it became more of a duet--and a lovely one, at that. (I believe the mystery singer was a guest of at least one of the musicians; he may not have been a plant, but he was hardly an amateur either.)

The final song of the night, at least for us peons who aren't invited upstairs, was "Waterloo Sunset," graced with a slightly slurred, Dylan-esque tone. That might've been the jet lag taking hold--but then how do you explain the gorgeous solo pouring out of the Jon's acoustic guitar?

Note: I couldn't attend the Jon Brion/Nels Cline gig the following night, for a reason that will be revealed in a couple of days, depending on how quickly my brain can regenerate after this epic account. My streak is broken, but I'll do everything in my power to attend their next show.

Set 1
--Centerfold/piano improv
--Same Mistakes
--Piece of You
--That's Just What You Are
--The Way It Went
--Same Thing
--So I Fell in Love With You
--Strings That Tie to You
--Tainted Love

with Sebastian Steinberg
--Enjoy the Silence
--Anything Goes
--Purple Haze
--Stairway to Heaven

with Fiona Apple and Sebastian Steinberg
--(I Got a Man, Crazy for Me) He's Funny That Way
--You Belong to Me

--Two and a Half Men theme
--Christmastime Is Here/Heroes

--Take 5
--Hold the Line/Cream/Kings/Beatles/Bowie, et al./Misty Mountain Hop/Telegram Sam/Hot Legs/Hot Blooded/All Right Now, et al./Misty Mountain Hop

Set 2
Tyler Chester, Sebastian Steinberg, and Sean Watkins
--Never Call
--Wild Side
--You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go

Tyler Chester, Erin McLaughlin, Sebastian Steinberg, and Sean Watkins

Tyler Chester, Sebastian Steinberg, and Sean Watkins

Fiona Apple, Jon Brion, Tyler Chester, Sebastian Steinberg, and Sean Watkins
--Banks of the Ohio
--Jon's song about the housing bubble
--In the Pines
--Lovesick Blues

Jon Brion, Tyler Chester, Sebastian Steinberg, and Sean Watkins
--She Thinks I Still Care [vox = Sebastian]

Jon Brion, Sebastian Steinberg, and Sean Watkins
--Pink Triangle
--Last Word in Lonesome Is Me
--Waterloo Sunset

See also:
» they asked me how i knew
» a change might be a thing to try
» manifestation of desire

Thursday, September 02, 2010

from the past a rumor comes

I've cooled on reunion tours in the last few years, but I reserve the right to change my mind, especially when it comes to a band whose music I've loved for more than two decades. That band is Crowded House, and after missing their last two tours of the United States, I mended the errors of my ways by hitting their gig at the Warfield.

MTV moon landingCrowded House, the Warfield, August 23, 2010: Regular readers of this blog may or may not recall the days of when MTV played actual music videos, but the legends are true: There was such a time! As a burgeoning music nerd, I crammed in as many hours in front of the TV set as I could, though that might not be saying much since my family didn't have cable. Trust me--I watched plenty of videos. Funny thing, though, I don't care for many of those bands anymore, but I'm still very fond of Crowded House.

You have to take the following paragraph with a huge grain of salt because I don't trust my memory on this front. As I recall, however, when Crowded House finally broke through in the United States circa 1986-1987, their earnest, unpretentious sound signified a huge departure from many of the groups I usually liked at the time. Of course there were predecessors in the jangly, folksy vein, but none of them hit heavy rotation on MTV, which made all the difference in the world. I was hooked, and the fascination has carried through for, well, decades.

Clearly, this history is not mine alone; take a look around a typical Crowded House show, and you'll likely see a majority of faces of a certain age, myself included. Listen in, though, and you may decide this is no mere nostalgia tour. For a band with only two official hits in the United States, Crowded House can sure get a lot of people singing along to their songs, even their deep album cuts.

You sort of expect it with the likes of "Fall at Your Feet" or "Four Seasons in One Day," both of which Neil intentionally handed over to the audience. However, I heard plenty of voices around me for the moodier and less obvious numbers such as "Nails in Your Feet" and "Kare Kare." Personally, I was happy to hear so many songs from Together Alone, which occupies a special place in my memories; the band's looser musical direction on that disc doesn't hurt either.

Nick Holds up the LyricsI have to give my friend a lot of credit for making this show such a memorable one. Crowded House has long encouraged audience requests, and they took up the challenge early on in the gig with an attempt at Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing." My friend was much more proactive with her request, providing a sizable scroll of paper with the lyrics to "Tombstone" written out in large, legible letters. Neil couldn't refuse, and the crowd got to hear a true rare gem.

I can't resist the urge to connect the dots between my most adored performers, and I'm pretty sure those years of listening to Crowded House paved, in part, the path to the musicians I love so much these days. In fact, it's not just conjecture; Neil Finn has collaborated with my two favorite artists, and I've been able to witness at least one of those partnerships on several occasions. Heck, we even sort of forced a crossover moment with the other songwriter in question last year. I may or may not be back for another Crowded House tour, but it's no exaggeration to say that they've been a part of my musical DNA for a long time now and to come.

See also:
» i've got it bad
» that year

Saturday, August 21, 2010

trees held us in on all four sides

Eyes on the prize--I feel like an ass comparing concert attendance to a society-altering humanitarian campaign, but the phrase has been on my mind throughout this summer of frugality. I'd be an even bigger idiot to claim to have made any great sacrifices during this interim, so I'll cut to the chase instead: After a somewhat protracted journey, I arrived at Wilco's inaugural Solid Sound Festival--but honestly, was there ever any doubt I'd miss out on a Wilco nerd's dream come true?

Solid Sound Festival, August 13-15, 2010: I'll say it again: I hate festivals, but Solid Sound was no ordinary three-ring circus. This was, by any yardstick, the ultimate show for a Wilco geek, with each and every attraction bearing some mark of the band. Considering the other extremes I've traversed to see this band, I'd have been a fool to skip it.

Solid Sound

Instead, the gang factored in extra time--ostensibly for travel, since there's no easy way to get to North Adams, but it also allowed us a luxuriously languid pace for at least a couple of days. We arrived a day before the fest's official opening, so we got to wander around the museum for a bit before the masses descended. In truth, even Friday saw a somewhat thin crowd, so in those two days, we traipsed around the grounds, investigated the nooks and crannies, followed detours, and even caught some entertainment. Oh, and there was also a random meeting with a fledgling cyclist, who offered a sweet welcome to the area.

Solid Sound FestivalThis relative respite turned out to be a blessing; we had a blast punching away at Nels Cline's pedals and Glenn Kotche's treated drums, as well as drinking in Mass MOCA's other exhibits, especially the Petah Coyne installation and the Sol Lewitt display. Music was already flowing on Friday, in the form of Pronto, the Books, and the Deep Blue Organ Trio. Truth be told, I didn't catch much of the Deep Blue Organ Trio, and we got in for only the end of the Books' set, but we were stationed for Pronto.

It was my first time seeing Mikael Jorgensen with the whole band--I mean, his whole band, not that other band--so of course I was interested in hearing what they could do with the tunes. There was some joshing on our end about hearing the "hits"--that is, "Monster" and the lack of vocals in tonight's performance of the song. Overall, the four-piece made good on that deceptively bygone sound featured so prominently on their album. But it wasn't all corduroy and electric piano; for the closer, Mike hovered over his sequencer (I think?) for a digitized call-and-response segment spelling out Pronto and Mass MOCA's names. It almost felt like a Chemical Brothers show for a few minutes!

I know I've stated my general strategies for festivals before, so I won't repeat it now, but as it turned out, these habits were discouraged at Solid Sound--at least to a greater extent than normal. If nothing else, Solid Sound forced me to be zen (to a point) and let me enjoy other acts. On Saturday, this meant I got to see Hannibal Burress in the comedy room and the other band sitting solidly on my radar: On Fillmore, who--despite their name--will in all likelihood never play the hallowed Fillmore of my hometown.

Having seen Glenn solo and the duo playing as part of Loose Fur, I knew that they'd go for an nontraditional sound. I was, however, surprised by some of their nontraditional staging. Of course, I have to note Darin's all-white outfit, Glenn's percussive necklace, and the blue monkey perched atop the piano. Then Darin wandered among the audience for the opening track, the two of them directed what appeared to be duck calls at one another, and later, Glenn communed with the crowd too. They both even played the piano! Alas, I couldn't tell you for sure if Glenn cracked that woman's skull, but whatever happened, you couldn't miss that sound, despite the din coming from the dunk tank, where Jeff Tweedy was sinking like a stone (according to reports).

On Fillmore at Solid Sound

I remain fascinated by Glenn's work with and without Wilco, so I appreciated this display of his talents outside of the typical pop or rock song structure. And who knows? Those bangs and booms may yet show up on a Wilco record.

Saturday's other musical milestone was the Mavis Staples set, the first use of Joe's Field out in Mass MOCA's backyard. Mavis's energy and joy brought the crowd together in a way that we hadn't yet seen at the festival's more intimate venues and performances. The fact that Jeff joined her for a few numbers was icing on the cake, but she was the center of attention--and for good reason. She proved without a doubt that "The Weight" and "I'll Take You There" are meant to be sung in unison with a gathering of mostly strangers, but it doesn't hurt when you have one of the most resonant voices in music leading the way.

Mavis Staples at Solid Sound

Saturday's sunshine and heat gave way to Sunday's overcast skies and, eventually, rain. Also, we scarfed down a pancake breakfast at the church across the street. Score! Overall, a more relaxed vibe infused the day as well, though the no-line line waiting for the gates to open to Joe's Field may have led you to believe otherwise. Sunday for me meant a good measure of Outrageous Cherry's infectious set, a visit to the dunk tank (where our own ringer hit the bulls-eye at an enviable 50 percent rate), and a portion of the Nels Cline Singers performance in which they were joined by Yuka Honda (whom I'd previously seen playing with Nels just a few months ago).

I've clocked many gigs by the Nels Cline Singers over the years, but I was pleased to witness the crowds amass for them--and in broad daylight, unlike the small, dark clubs they more frequently headline. Outrageous Cherry was another bonus of this weekend; they're well beloved among power pop aficionados, and it was great to hear their raw, irresistible sound for myself.

So far, you may have noticed two gaping holes in this concert report. Well, I'm getting to them: the headlining sets by Wilco and Jeff Tweedy on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. But before I hit that mark, I want to mention how Solid Sound felt like a natural extension of Wilco's development over the years. I don't think you can pin it to a specific event, but there's a trajectory in my mind that starts with the Chicago residency and the opening of the Wilco songbook; jumps to Jeff's solo shows over the last few years, where those older, rarer ditties were dusted off; detours through New Zealand, where the band got a chance to play and mingle with other musicians for the 7 Worlds Collide project; and then circles back to the six-piece ensemble we know and love and their spring "evening with" gigs, where those musical elements once again coalesced in a manner we hadn't expected.

Wilco at Solid Sound

In my humble opinion, Wilco's set on Saturday was good, though not spectacular, and I especially enjoyed the middle section when they surprised us with the likes of "Someday, Some Morning, Sometime" and "Nothingsevergonnastandinmyway(again)." And do you need me to go bananas once more for the full-band version of "Laminated Cat"? That's what I thought. If nothing else, the band kept the guys in front of me on their toes as they tried to keep a setlist of songs they'd never heard before.

Sunday's closing set, however, was sort of my fantasy gig, and the proceedings bore a suspicious resemblance to shows by a certain musician at a certain venue I love so much on the other side of the country--but I digress. Jeff started on his own with a pretty strong selection of tunes (nothing repeated from the night before, mais oui), but even we veterans were surprised by the inclusion of "Shaking Sugar," which he had claimed to not recall just this past March. Also unexpected: Unfounded accusations jokingly directed at one of the pillars of our tribe, though I understand they cleared up the matter later.

Halfway through the set, the cavalcade of stars arrived, with various musicians drawn from the festival lineup dropping in to play with Jeff, from Sir Richard Bishop to Nick from the Books to Avi Buffalo to Scott McCaughey to other members of Wilco, minus Glenn, who had left to join his very pregnant wife at home. These guests pulled off their own songs, fantastic covers, and deep album cuts from Wilco's back catalog--in other words, the stuff you pray for when you're a hopelessly dedicated fan.

Jeff Tweedy Solo Plus at Solid Sound

"Ingrid Bergman" with Nick from the Books drew gasps from us, perhaps because some of us are prudes, perhaps because the sexual metaphors are so clunky, or perhaps because they never do it live--take your pick. I didn't know the song that Jeff and Avi Buffalo chose to do together, but it was obviously a Neil Young title. For that reason alone, we were glad to listen. I also love hearing "It's Just That Simple" these days, but the choice of a closer sealed the deal and capped off the weekend perfectly for me.

Jeff Tweedy Solo Plus at Solid Sound

Granted, I heard "Outta Mind (Outta Sight)" at the last Wilco show I attended, but the Solid Sound rendition staked out new territory with the addition of Outrageous Cherry's Matt Smith on electric guitar. While Matt upped the tune's pop factor, Nels brought the folk with his work on the banjo, forming one of the more apt distillations of Wilco's influences, abilities, and ambitions.

Solid Sound, see you in 2011.

See also:
» milky pristine
» anomaly
» we were made for this
» if this was still new to me
» i've run out of metaphors
» i play the ones from yesterday
» try to downplay being uptight

Friday, July 30, 2010

they asked me how i knew

I mentioned my current cheapskate status in the last post, but my hypocrisy will be revealed as I file my monthly Jon Brion report for his show at Largo at the Coronet. I went against my better judgement and made the trip to Los Angeles, but hey, if it means eating ramen for the next month, so be it.

Jon Brion, Largo at the Coronet, July 23, 2010: I'll say one thing about these monthly Jon Brion shows: No one is taking them for granted these days, judging by the vociferous audience reaction for both the June gig and now July's date. Tonight, that enthusiasm manifested early on, when a good swath of the audience started clapping in time--as if we were at a rock concert or something--in the run-up to Flanny's intro. Granted, I'm not sure it brought Flanny or Jon to the stage more quickly, but that spirit carried all through the show.

Or in the words of Dennis Duffy: "It's like my cousin Teddy's dog. Sometimes he just doesn't want to lick my feet. So what I do is, I hide my feet from him for a couple of days. And then when he sees them, he goes bananas. So you see in this example, Liz is the dog, and I am my feet. Do you see what I'm saying?"

Dennis Duffy

Jon started out on the piano with a naggingly familiar song, but I blanked on it, even after he started singing--so thanks, Google! From there, he dove into his originals, both unreleased and otherwise for a decent stretch. In that block, "Ruin My Day" stood out for its fake-out beginning, with a few tentative notes sneaking together to form the song we know and love. The harmonica-and-celeste-laden "Knock Yourself Out" harkened back to versions we've heard before, but with a nursery rhyme-like quality I hadn't detected previously.

Jon turned on the video screens for "Strings That Tie to You," bringing together Andres Segovia and Maria Callas, though their contributions were fairly subtle. From the guitar footage, Jon isolated a few notes to loop and add to the mix, while Maria's aria once again served as something like a guitar solo, punching up the emotion and bringing a different texture to the tune.

From there, Jon asked for requests; I managed to get in the first one, taking us all the way back to the golden age of American indie rock for "Nothing Between Us" in a ragtimey tone. However, I admit that the second pick, "Love My Way," trumped my tune. Granted, I'm liable to say that about anything coming out of England in the '80s, but Jon's understated solo electric guitar treatment was simply dreamy.

That vigorous show-goers I mentioned at the outset? From the moment Jon asked for requests, at least one particularly group seated close to us had been shouting again and again for "Her Ghost." I'd like to be snarkier, but I have to give them credit for requesting one of Jon's own, for their persistence, and for their sincere thanks when Jon finally made their dreams come true. Besides, it's been a while since Jon dusted off the ditty, and it was a welcome return, especially in that "Almost Blue"-like mold he tried on.

Jon explained his next choice as a request he's never tried before, though I do recall a truncated attempt from a couple of years back. This time, he carried off "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" with nary a hitch, though he required a short interval to hammer out the details. Once prepped, Jon ran it through what might be called the White Album-style treatment, a template he also works with for "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "You Don't Know What Love Is," among others. His voice sounded lovely, a far cry from the Bryan Ferry rendition I usually hear in my brain, and bringing Jon's inspiration back to its Beatles roots, he rounded out this performance with a Slow Hand-worthy guitar solo.

Looking once again to his own songs, Jon brought out a hollow-body Gretsch for a delightfully jangly "It Looks Like You," then did a 180, easing out the Magnolia theme. Finally, for the last song of the main set, he went with a request for "Heroes," called out earlier in the evening. I've gushed about this song at great length all over this blog, so I'll go easy on the blabbing this time. Nonetheless, it remains as fantastic and as exhilarating as ever.

For the encore, Jon brought in his "conductor friend"--that is, footage of Leopold Stokowski (rendered in Warner Bros. form below; thanks for the tip, Gonzi!). Jon had cued up Leo earlier, but his contributions to "Heroes" was negligible, as far as I could tell. The orchestral strings came in more appreciably for "Please Stay Away From Me."

Bugs Bunny as Leopold Stokowski

And then--it was over. No friends dropped in, and the second set in the Little Room didn't materialize, though we hung out for a little while just in case. I, of course, will always opt for maximum music, but it's hard to feel bad after such a buoyant, animated gig. As the saying goes: Always leave them wanting more. Consider us wanting.

--Our Love Is Here to Stay
--Piece of You
--Ruin My Day
--She's At It Again
--Knock Yourself Out
--Strings That Tie to You
--Nothing Between Us
--Love My Way
--Her Ghost
--Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
--It Looks Like You
--Magnolia theme

--Please Stay Away From Me

See also:
» amidst all the to and fro
» use your mentality
» we could steal time, just for one day